Confessions of a cupcake curmudgeon

cuckoo coconut cupcake

After the column detailing my issues with cupcakes, I received an email from Sherril Koroluk with the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill. She asked me to judge its annual cupcake contest.

A confirmed cupcake curmudgeon judging a cupcake contest? Did she not read the column?

She wanted a discriminating judge. Well, that’s what she’d be getting. I decided to do it because I still harbored hope that there might be out there, somewhere, a cupcake I could love. I don’t enjoy being anti-cupcake, and I do take abuse for my stance.

There were 30 entries. Add all those little cakes together, and that’s a lot of cake. My fellow judges and I decided to divide them up between us. We’d each taste 10, pick two or three we liked, then all taste those. Poet Ruth Moose – no relation that we’re willing to admit, although we call each other “Cuz” – zipped through hers. Emily Pierce from Chapel Hill’s Sugarland bakery and I were a little slower.

The first few of my 10 did not leave me hopeful of a change of heart. One baker tried to color the frosting Carolina Blue and ended up with a dull purple. I’m not sure what color a baker was going for on the frosting for another, but it was gray. People eat with their eyes, folks.

One cupcake had an aftertaste so yukky that I had to spit the bite into a trash can. Emily and Ruth tried to figure out what it was, too. Black pepper? Cayenne? Rusty nails?

One promising cakelet was ruined by an overdose of canned cherry pie filling. Another had good chocolate flavor and a pretty appearance, but the combination of an icing and glaze made the cake too soft. Some had the common problem of overly sweet icing. At least none of them committed my most despised cupcake offense, a mountain of icing. I didn’t have to shave any cupcakes before tasting them.

Judging the contest was starting to feel like giving a boring guy a second date – a nice gesture, but a really bad idea.

Then, I saw it. Glowing and lovely. The cupcake was in Ruth’s group, and I found out why she had finished so fast. It was called Cuckoo Coconut Cupcake. Why “cuckoo” we don’t know, unless that’s what it makes you when you eat it. It was so simple: A moist, finely textured cake with a creamy topping sprinkled with coconut. It was our clear winner. The baker was 11-year-old Paulina Garcia Hernandez, who received $100.

Second place went to a chocolate-caramel cupcake from JP’s Cupcakery. Third place was an orange-flavored cake, creatively baked in an orange half, from Anna Mae and Natasha Arbalagan.

The experience has caused my feelings about cupcakes to shift only slightly. Among cupcakes, there are still a lot of frogs out there and few princes – but you may find one.


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